Stress & Resilience

Building Employee Resilience Through Benefits with Donna Fernandez


Many employees say the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been the most stressful time of their careers, and this statement is not far-fetched. Job losses, pay cuts, fear of getting fired, or the general anxiety that comes with the word COVID-19 has cast intense mental health stress upon nearly all of us. 

According to a 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association, 79 percent of employees had experienced work-related stress amid the pandemic, including loss of interest, motivation, or energy, and lack of effort at work. While 36 percent reported cognitive fatigue, about 44 percent reported physical fatigue. While work-related stress had been a recurring issue for decades, the pandemic reinforced and heightened it. 

These events have renewed the conversation around building resilience in organizations and helping employees achieve mindfulness by leveraging workplace benefits. In a recent episode of the Edelheit experience, Donna Fernandez, Senior Manager, Benefits Administration for Houston Independent School District shared her experience helping employees achieve wellness, resilience, and optimal mental wellbeing. 

Donna who has a track record with wellness programs, shared insights drawn from several years of experience helping employees use their benefits to improve their health and the quality of their lives and those of their family members. Donna also is a member of the Mental Health First Aid Program, which brings people and resources together to further the task of mental health awareness and stomp out the stigma that is generally a barrier to mental health.

Donna mentioned that when the Houston School District reopened after the pandemic receded in 2021, it met a highly stressed workforce, that was just recovering from the chaos and pressures of the pandemic. Donna’s team, which also included Benefits counselors swiftly expanded benefits solutions, including mental wellbeing resources, counseling sessions, EAP webinars that touched on financial wellness and mental wellbeing, as well as personalized interactions with employees to find out what they needed and how they wanted to be helped. 

For many of these workers, these solutions gave them the needed buffer to bounce back to work and shed much of the anxieties that came with returning to the office. Donna recalled that providing ample support to their employees in the best way possible was necessary to ensure that workers returning to work were not only less anxious but more motivated. This is resilience. 

Donna’s experience highlights three essential components of building resilience through resilience: helping employees understand first what their benefits are and how they can utilize them; leveraging the right communication channels, and; offering personalized approaches to solve their problems. 

Without these three components factored into employees' benefits packages, employees will remain burnt out, stressed out, and feel undervalued even if your organization is replete with benefit plans. 

First, are your employees even aware of their benefits? How are you communicating that to them? What have been the barriers to your employees’ access to these benefits? Are you using a one-size-fits-all approach to healthcare for your workers? Are you the barrier to your employees accessing their health benefits? 

In Donna’s case, her team weaved this valuable information on benefits with some form of entertainment. Using food trucks and social events that provide healthy and “comfort” food for employees, employees are drawn, engaged, and get interactive with one another. The team then provides the information about wellness and benefits at this time, when it is more “readily absorbed” and received.

The School District employees also have access to a relaxation lounge in two of its locations. Employees can visit these lounges during work hours to relax, meditate, engage in yoga exercises, practice aromatherapy, or just listen to music. Donna said the innovative program, which began in July, was successful as it left their employees happier, more energetic, and more productive. 

All the while employees are engaged in these activities, they are also soaking up their benefits information, including health insurance plans, wellness packages, and financial compensations. The key is to avoid a monotonous approach to communicating with your employees but spicing it up with eye-catching and engaging ideas. 

Identifying the best channel of communication for your employees also influences how well they engage with your benefits packages. Your organization is diverse; it has people of different cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds and each of them responds to various stimuli differently. 

In simple terms, what works for one employee may not work for the other. A case in point is technology. 

“We can’t always go to technology for everyone; there are some people that love technology, there are others who don’t like technology, and then there are those people who are in between. So strictly digital solutions may not work for everybody. 

While digital communication via emails, webinars, and seminars may be adequate to pass relevant health information to some employers, others may be more receptive when other methods are employed. For instance, instead of sending generic emails about diabetes treatment and care, some people may do better with more personalized information as it relates to diet choices, medicine doses and interactions, and weight loss strategies. Others may also prefer and are better engaged with video chats with professionals and health coaches

Knowing what your employees really want is the other component of engaging your employees with their benefit plans. Many business leaders are often awed by their own ideas of how wellness should be, and they line up strategies and concepts of wellness, many of which fail woefully. What do your employees need to have to remain healthy and productive, or how best can wellness be offered to them to achieve the highest goal and outcomes? Are you using a blanket approach or are you actually listening to them?

Donna says much of their ideas come from what from feedback, survey responses, and direct interactions with employees. Not only does this reflect an employer’s commitment to building a healthy and resilient workforce, but also demonstrates transparency and trust. 

“We leverage these channels to ask our employees what they are looking out for and what they want to see, and then we sift through these ideas to create concepts that show them that we are listening to them,” Donna said. “This has a way to engage employees; if an employee sees that their suggestion was used, it engages them” 

Corporate wellness is evolving since the pandemic upended the workplaces. Now more than ever, organizations have realized the need to build resilience within their workforce. But this requires an intentional approach, which must take into account what employees need, how best those needs can be addressed, and how best such solutions can be communicated to them to achieve the desired outcomes. 

Learn about how you can become a Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist→